August 24, 2015, by Kathryn Steenson
Putting the ‘camp’ into ‘campus’
It’s an urban legend that’s almost as popular as the old “the library is sinking because the architect forgot to take into account the weight of the books” myth. Over the next couple of months, as new students arrive at universities up and down the country, there will be the annual resurgence of the rumour that a particular building – usually an older hall of residence – was modelled on a design used for a prison.
Quite what architects have done to warrant this reputation for incompetence is a mystery (surely none of the University’s former architecture students would be the cause!), but for The University of Nottingham, the second tale isn’t that far removed from the truth. The vast majority of students based at Sutton Bonington would – hopefully! – agree that its countryside location makes it an ideal home for the School of Biosciences and School of Veterinary Medicine and Science. They would probably be surprised to know that its rural location also made the Government decide it would make an ideal prisoner-of-war camp for German soldiers and sailors captured during WWI.
The First World War began on 28th July 1914 with Britain entering the war on the 4th August. By the time the war ended on 11th November 1918 an estimated 7 to 9 million soldiers had been taken prisoner. Accommodating Prisoners of War was a huge undertaking for all involved.
At the start of the war neither side had systems in place for dealing with POWs. Makeshift camps were hastily erected, either by building from scratch or commandeering existing buildings. An increase in student numbers had led what was then the Midland Agricultural and Dairy College to purchase a new, larger site at Sutton Bonington in 1911. The new buildings were completed in 1916 but were taken over by the War Office as a Prisoner of War Camp before the College could use them.
The agricultural intentions of the site were not abandoned by the new, temporary occupants, as the German POWs grew crops. This photo shows rows of lettuces behind an un-named German POW, who, from the uniform he is wearing, had served in a submarine.
The Sutton Bonington camp was used to house German officers, the vast majority of whom were failed escapees from other POW camps. With up to 500 high-risk prisoners being incarcerated there, further escape attempts were perhaps inevitable. So it was that, on 24th September 1917, 22 men escaped from the Sutton Bonington camp through a tunnel that had been dug to the outside world.
This article from the Nottingham Guardian announces the re-capture of the most high profile escapee, Kapitan Karl Friedrich von Muller, a celebrated German naval officer, along with two other escapees whose names are not given. All the prisoners were rounded up over the course of a week. The final four were taken into custody on 1st October, having reached Brimington near Chesterfield.
The College finally gained possession in 1919 and the new campus was officially opened on 27th October 1919. The Lime Avenue was planted to commemorate those lost in the First World War. There is said to be a ‘Queen’s Shilling’ buried underneath each tree.
These and other records from the University Archives formed the basis of a display at the James Cameron-Gifford Library on Sutton Bonington campus, an online version of which is on our website. The original documents can be viewed in the Manuscripts & Special Collections Reading Room on King’s Meadow Campus. For more information, visit our website or follow us on Twitter.